Due for its second reading in Parliament today on 2 February 2018 the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill 2017-19 includes giving coroners the power to investigate stillborn deaths.
Jeremy Hunt announced in November 2017 that the government would look into changing the law to allow coroners to investigate full-term stillbirths and one speedy way of implementing such a change in law would be for the government to support the Private Members Bill introduced by Tim Loughton MP.
This would be especially welcomed by the Campaign for Safer Births – a campaign which Shoosmiths supports – which has been fighting tirelessly for full term stillbirths to have an independent inquest. Campaign co-founder Michelle Hemmington has made contact with all senior coroners to explain and promote the need for their involvement in term stillbirths and claims to have the support of many coroners for just such a change in law.
At present, there is no obligation for a hospital or any clinical provider to report the death of an infant categorised as a ‘stillbirth’ to HM Coroner and it is not within a coroner’s legal jurisdiction to investigate stillbirths, even if they happen at term and negligence is suspected or there are serious concerns about a death or about the care being given in a particular unit.
However, Sarah Harper, a senior associate in Shoosmiths medical negligence team who specialises in stillbirth cases, has had experience of many instances where coroners have taken it upon themselves to go beyond their strict remit and investigate such cases.
In addition, a recent Court of Appeal judgement reaffirmed the powers of coroners to gather whatever evidence is necessary to determine if the infant was indeed stillborn, whether as a preliminary inquiry or as part of an investigation that includes an inquest.
In R.(T) v. HM Senior Coroner for West Yorkshire  EWCA Civ 318, 28 April 2017, the decision made clear that a coroner is entitled to open an investigation into whether a child was stillborn or not, without first having to be satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, the baby had been born alive.
‘As long as a coroner suspects that one of the matters set out in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 s.1 (2) is engaged - in particular that the cause of death is unnatural or unknown - then the coroner is empowered by that section to investigate and, if necessary, conduct an inquest into the death of a baby who might or might not have been born alive.’
‘While this Court of Appeal ruling gives parents who have questioned their babies stillbirth registration the possibility of a thorough and robust investigation, it is no substitute for the absolute clarity and certainty that the successful passage of Tim Loughton’s Bill into law would give to coroners and grieving parents throughout England and Wales.’
How we can help
Stillbirth claims are challenging to deal with - legally and emotionally. We appreciate that the circumstances that might make you contact Shoosmiths will be distressing, but our experts will support you every step of the way.
Call our client services team on 01256696330 for a free initial consultation. We have experience in this type of claim and will be glad to discuss the options that are available to you.
Watch our stillbirth video case study featuring Michelle Hemmington